Friday, December 26, 2008

Miketz/Chanuka: Ethnic Tension

This weeks parsha probably has the first blatantly recorded example of pure “racial” anti-Semitism in the Torah, where it records (43:32): “The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” Rashi explains this as religiously-motivated discrimination, because Jews ate the Egyptian deities. (One might say that Jews didn’t invent not eating in each others’ kitchens; does that make it a goyish concept?)

Rabbi Yehuda Herz Henkin theorizes that at the time of Yosef’s ascension to viceroy, the Hyksos were in control of Egypt, which was one of the factors that allowed Yosef to come to power. The ethnic Egyptians became a disenfranchised majority in their own country (compare, Blacks in South Africa until 1994, Shiites in Iraq until 2003, non-Alawites in contemporary Syria).

Yosef was able to take advantage of these ethnic tensions and rule by fiat; we will see how he employed absolute state control over the economy at the end of this weeks parsha and next weeks. But the most interesting thing is that Yosef, in preparation for the upcoming golus mitzrayim, tried to level the playing field, as it were, by forcing the entire male populace to circumcise themselves. (This might somewhat echo the tactic of the Danish under Nazi occupation in 1943 when their King decreed that the entire populace wear yellow stars.)

Confusing the issue further, we have Rav Hutner’s explanation of the uniqueness of Chanukah, or glaus yavan. Unlike all the other galuyos, he maintains that the impetus behind galus yavan was the internal wrangling between the religious Jews and the Hellenists, where Jews actually actively not only aided and abetted their enemies, but actually invited and welcomed the anti-religious persecution.

So this is how the cahin plays out: Yosef, the ultimate victim of fraternal sinah (his brothers thought they were religiously justified in attempting to kill him), takes full advantage of an already politically dubious situation and reduces the entire population to economic and personal vassalage, all for theoretically selfish political ends: to reduce the eventual discomfort his family will experience when they are exiled here.

What does this tell us in terms of our political allegiances?

First of all, we have to examine the two factors at play here which would indicate to us why we would NOT adopt Yoesf’s method as our political attitudes. First of all, the region had been plunged into a dire economic crisis and lives were at stake; states of emergency do not ever lend themselves to any sort of political ideal. The second is that Yosef, operating at the highest levels of nevuah, was, as it were, having his policy dictated to him by G-d. There is (I think) nobody who would make that claim nowadays.

However, I will go out on a limb and say there is another lesson to be learned here, regarding Jews political allegiances and attitudes. The question remains: is it ever politically and morally legitimate to take advantage of ethno-political tensions for our own benefit? (The best current examples I can think of are Israel’s refusing to take sides against the Serbs in the Balkan wars, the Serbs being the least anti-Semitic of all the participants in the conflict, or their refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as such for fear of offending their allies the Turks. (There was an article in a recent Commentary theorizing that the Armenian tragedy was more a massacre than a bonafide genocide, but that’s somewhat disingenuous, to say the least.)

We have to realize that such a move will, one way or another, come back to get us. Yosef, theoretically, did everything right politically and spitirually; yet, as Rabbi Henkin theorizes, when the Egyptians drove out the Hyksos and retook the country, that’s when the shibud started in earnest. Apparently the Egyptians did not learn the intended lesson from the forced circumcisions; they reasserted their majority status the second they had the opportunity.

Yet we also have to realize, as Yoni Netanyahu said before he led the rescue at Entebbe, if we don’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us. We always have to come first.

So I will say that the political lesson of this parsha can be summed up as follows:

Sometimes what is never the best course of action may prove to be the only available one. Just make sure that it is.

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